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Words and History: The Trouble With “Genocide Joe”

Ascribing personal responsibility to Biden for the carnage in Gaza takes our eyes off the prize, which is the structure of imperialist oppression, on the one hand, and building the broadest possible movement to fight it, on the other.

"History is more or less bunk.” This quaint expression, uttered by Henry Ford in 1921, reveals that words, like history, can mean more than meets the eye. Taken out of context his comment can signify almost anything, like the classic Sam Cooke song lyric, “Don’t know much about history”. Ford’s actual remark came in reference to railroad labor struggles, with the billionaire apparently expressing his displeasure with workers remembering past battles between labor and capital. 

It’s my hope that people engaged in the righteous struggle to stop the genocidal Zionist war machine in Gaza, contra Ford, will remember some relevant context and history when they consider the coming presidential election. 

I am troubled every time I hear someone referring to Joe Biden as “Genocide Joe.” Ascribing personal responsibility to the president for the carnage in Gaza is not entirely wrong.  But it is, in fact, mostly wrong: the personalization takes our eyes off the prize, which is the structure of imperialist oppression, on the one hand, and building the broadest possible movement to fight it, on the other.

The president of the United States is a two-headed beast, as noted in an earlier column.  He is the imperialist-in-chief on the international front, regardless of wearing a donkey or elephant pin. As such, his support for the Israeli apartheid regime, planted for three quarters of a century next to the largest oil fields in the world, is reflexive. Joe Biden, the person, is irrelevant to this function of the presidency. Should we pressure him to pull US aid to Israel? Of course. But we’d have to do that no matter who’s in the White House.

United States domestic policy is a different story.  For instance, the president appoints judges. We are today living with the consequences of Trump’s Supreme Court appointments in the form of the evisceration of women’s right to control their own bodies, among other tragedies. Trump’s misogynist base was fortunate he occupied the presidency when vacancies arose, and all the rest of us were unfortunate that a Democratic president wasn’t doing the appointing instead.

The president also appoints the heads of powerful federal agencies, like the National Labor Relations Board.  In an unprecedented move, on Biden’s first day in office, he fired Trump’s NLRB chair, a viciously anti-union lawyer, and replaced him with pro-labor attorney Jennifer Abruzzo. Without Abruzzo and Biden’s NLRB majority there would have been, for instance, no Starbucks Workers United successes on the scale they have occurred. Under a Trump administration the baristas’ organizing would have been greatly slowed and probably stopped dead through lengthy procedural delays and adverse Board decisions. Who is president matters for the American working class and its ability to act collectively on its own behalf. 

A singular focus on the international scene, shorn of accounting for the dual role of the presidency, means that the legitimate desire to stop the genocide in Palestine—if it leads to sitting out the 2024 election—can quite possibly prevent us from creating the conditions for stopping future events like it. Such conditions almost always require a strong, militant progressive movement, with labor playing a big role. Note that this is precisely what has occurred over the past several months, as a powerful anti-war movement has shifted public opinion and the center of gravity within the Democratic Party and organized labor. Note too, that this has transpired within the political space overseen by a Democratic administration.

Compare and contrast with the onset of the second Iraq war in 2003, where a massive but brief anti-war movement crashed and burned against the brick wall of the right-wing Bush administration.  

What the performative enunciation of “Genocide Joe” misses, in its virtue signaling, is the practical consequence that will follow a defeat of Joe Biden in November. Throughout the long reign of capitalism as world system it has assumed a number of political forms. It has demonstrated on any number of occasions that it can easily shed a democratic skin and replace it with an authoritarian one.  Trump is very clear:  this is his plan. When the next Gaza arises—and given American imperialism, it will—the space for a mass movement to oppose it will be tightly constrained and likely violently crushed by the repressive force of a police state under far-right Republican control.

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Building socialism is always now

At a recent meeting of my East Bay DSA chapter the comrades narrowly defeated a resolution that sought to make opposition to Trump official DSA policy.  Since there is no chance that DSA will be endorsing Trump, the vote foreclosed the possibility of the chapter officially working on behalf of Biden.  Two of the people arguing against opposing Trump used the term “Genocide Joe.” One seemed to make the phrase itself his main argument, repeating it several times.

The derogatory “Genocide Joe” enunciation plays in the same sandbox as Trump, who loves elementary schoolyard level nicknames for his opponents. Referring to Biden this way—or anyone else—corrodes reasoned political discourse and tends to end, not engage, rational discussion of the issues.

Part of building a socialist movement is the modeling of socialist human relations, to the extent that that is possible within a capitalist culture.  In the late twentieth century we called such modeling “prefigurative politics.” It was a new twist that socialist feminists placed on the concept the Industrial Workers of the World had already promulgated a century ago when it called for “building a new society within the shell of the old”.

Words have meaning, and so does history

Is history predictive? Sometimes. Marx’s idea that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, isn’t the way it always works, although it happened to in the situation he described. Closer might be Mark Twain’s “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme”. At the very least we might agree that while history doesn’t necessarily provide a guide to the future, we ignore it at our peril. 

It would be in this spirit of informed suggestion, rather than certainty, that we might ask:  what do events in 1933, 1968, and 2021 tell us about the coming election and its likely outcomes?

First, in reverse order, January 6, 2021 is an easy one.  Trump has repeatedly told us that he won’t accept any outcome except victory. We can expect a more organized insurrection this time around if he loses. He and his lieutenants have had four years to ponder what went wrong, to plan differently, and stoke the resentments and grievances that fueled an attempted coup once before. Although we can’t know how that will turn out—presumably public security forces have also learned from January 6—what Trump will do if he wins is not in question.  If he has his way, the democratic experiment called “the United States” will become a memory, and Trump will do his best to distort and extinguish the memory itself.

Second, for someone my age who lived through 1968 as a more or less sentient being, I find it remarkable that some people today think that installing Trump in power, with the accompanying repression of democratic liberties, will awaken the masses and hasten the coming of socialism. Consider the repetition or rhyme: a slice of the anti-war left in 1968, disgusted with Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey’s support of the Viet Nam War, tried hard to believe a Nixon presidency would bring on the revolution.  How did that work out? 

Marx’s tragedy repeating as farce? Sure, except a Trump presidency will be no joke, and Trump in power a second time will make Nixon in retrospect look like Eugene V. Debs.  

History isn’t inevitable until it has already happened. We still have time—although not much—to prevent a fascist America. But we have to make the right choices based on all the factors in play, not just one elevated above all the rest. Hitler’s rise to power depended on the split between the KPD (Communist Party) and SPD (Social Democratic Party). Together the two left parties held more seats and polled more votes than the Nazis; that numerical superiority was short-circuited by the Communists’ suicidal belief that the Social Democrats were as bad or worse than the Nazis. Calling the SPD “social-fascists”, the Communists refused any overtures to work together.  

What did this lead to?  Six million Jewish dead, which became the ideological justification for the Zionist state; fifty million World War II dead in all; and the German Communists were the first to be rounded up for the concentration camps. Divide and conquer tactics work best when enthusiastically embraced by the divided parties themselves.

“Genocide Joe” is a contemporary linguistic rhyme for “social-fascists”—an insult that divides people who need to be united and obscures the bigger picture with schadenfreude masquerading as politics. It’s tempting, I know. But please don’t. There’s too much at stake.

Fred Glass is the author of From Mission to Microchip: "A History of the California Labor Movement" (University of California Press, 2016). He is a member of the state committee of California DSA, and the former communications director of the California Federation of Teachers.